Public Executions Signal New Wave of Suppression
A masked Iranian soldier holds the rope while another tightens the noose around the neck of a man sentenced to death by hanging in the southern city of Shiraz on Sept. 5. Twenty-one criminals were executed in a single day. (Photo: AFP-Getty Images)
"Do you think that execution can purify you?" the Iranian television reporter asked the young convict, waving the microphone in front of the prisoner's lowered head.
"I don't know," murmured the twenty-something criminal in a hushed voice after seconds of silence.
"What do you think has drawn you to the hangman's noose?" the reporter insisted.
There was no reply.
Those were probably the last words that Abolfazl Sadeghi, convicted of "theft, rape and abduction," heard in his short life before being hanged along with 11 co-defendants. The condemned were introduced as "Arazel o Obash" — literally "rascals and villains" — on a rare television show broadcast from inside of the execution cell, which was aired in late July. Four others had been executed on the same charges a few days prior to that.
The convicts were lined up in a dark prison yard, wearing their own casual clothes; the camera panned on their terrifyingly indifferent faces.
The reporter from the state-run television station then moved to the others who were lined up in Tehran's notorious Evin prison awaiting their imminent deaths, asking similar questions:
Q: What do you think is the ultimate result of ignorance and carelessness?
Q: What do you mean by "this"?
A: Hangman's noose
Such were the replies from young Ebrahim Eskandari, another "thug," who was looking up with wide, dazzled eyes into the camera located just a foot or two above him.
The rare interviews were aired as the first round of collective executions took place in a recent wave of public hangings which has brought sharp criticisms from human rights defenders around the world. Rights observers, such as Amnesty International, believe that the synchronous execution of tens of criminals only weeks after their arrests highlights the probability of unfair trials, in which the maximum penalty is carried out.
"Every person, regardless of the crime he is affiliated with, has a right to access a legal defense by an attorney," said Iranian human rights lawyer Mohammad Ali Dadkhah. "Of course, there is no doubt that these heavy crimes — such as rape, drug trafficking, abduction — must be dealt with seriously, but it is the legal route and the fairness of the trial that we are arguing about; that is simply a basic undeniable right."
The convicts were among hundreds of individuals who got arrested following a harsh crackdown against "villains," which was carried out by the Iranian police in May. They were the first to be put to death.
"The verdict for rape, abduction and such crimes is capital punishment according to the Islamic Punitive law," said Tehran's general prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi. "We will pursue the same approach toward other people who — God forbid — attempt the same crimes." The presecutor made the statement on the same day that 12 convicts were hanged.
Since then, an increasing number of executions have been carried out in different parts of Iran on charges of murder, adultery, rape, drug trafficking and assassination. At least 60 people have been put to death since mid-July, including 21 on Sept. 5 alone, according to a count based on Iranian media reports.
Apart from the human rights aspect of this issue, another similarly important factor is evident in the wave of executions — the one goal that critics of the Islamic Republic believe to be the true reason for the crackdown: dominance by fear.
Almost all of the executions have been carried out through public hangings. Videos of the whole process are then broadcast over the Internet for those who might have missed the show. The quality of many of these videos, and the restricted areas that they have been shot from, leaves almost no doubt that they have been filmed by state-authorized cameramen and released intentionally.
"They were hanged near our home," said Ali, 23, referring to the two assassins of Judge Hassan Moqaddas, who were executed publicly in Tehran last summer. "You could see the whole thing from our apartment's window. I really tried hard not to watch the scene, but then later found the video on the Internet and watched it. Since then, every day that I have to pass the place to go to university I feel this chill in my bones. Just knowing that two people were officially killed by the authorities near your home gives you this deep feeling of insecurity."
The hanging of Majid Kavoosifar and Hossein Kavoosifar on charges of assassination marked the first public execution in approximately six years in Tehran.
"The authorities want to make sure that people understand their seriousness and firmness in maintaining power," said Abdolkarim Lahiji, vice president of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights Leagues. "It's just that they have chosen the harshest way."
The series of the public executions began less than a month after Tehran and some other major cities experienced a very rare night of public unrest. On June 27, a number of gas stations were completely burned down by angry automobile owners after the government unexpectedly announced its plan to begin rationing petrol overnight.
Critics believe that the "failure" of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government in handling the economy, which brought an unprecedented increase in prices, has intensified the public dissatisfaction with the current government — a disapproval that the Islamic Republic fears might trigger broader unrest across the country.
The recent wave of public hangings in Iran has coincided with the revival of some other harsh Islamic punitive verdicts. On July 5 Jafar Kiani, a man convicted of adultery, was stoned to death in a village near Takistan — the first case of such an execution in more than five years. Moreover, the judiciary of the eastern province of Khorasan confirmed in mid-December that in a very rare move, the fingers of four people convicted of theft were amputated in its major city of Mashhad.
"Although these verdicts, such as amputation and stoning exist in Iran's Islamic Punitive Law, it has never been practiced like the way it is practiced in Arabic countries," said Tehran-based lawyer Nemat Ahmadi. "The practice of such verdicts had been minimized in Iran due to the efforts of human rights activists, and the opposition of Iran's Judiciary head, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi."
The stoning of Kiani took place in spite of the fact that Shahroudi had personally halted the execution of the verdict a few days prior to the event. No explanation was given regarding the controversy.
The third and perhaps the most widespread crackdown launched by the Islamic Republic of Iran, which critics view as a means to maintain the supremacy over the society, is a tightening up on "lax dressing" that came to the fore during the more relaxed atmosphere of the reformist administration of ex-president Mohammad Khatami.
According Iranian police sources, in the first three months of the crackdown alone, "more than 527,000 people have been warned, over 20,000 have been arrested and released conditionally, and a total of 2,265 cases — involving men and women — have been presented to judiciary sources for trial on the charge of noncompliance with the Islamic dress code."
This crackdown, although not a new phenomenon to the Iranian people, is known to be the most extensive of its kind in the past decade.
Teams of police have been patrolling streets of major cities — particularly Tehran — since the clampdown began in April, arresting young girls and boys who do not follow the strictest interpretation of the dress code.
Evidence suggests that the methods of the Iranian police in confronting widespread dress-code noncompliance have moved toward more harsh behavior, where in many cases it has resulted in physical friction between police and the people.
"I prefer to change the way I dress according to what they [authorities] want, rather than being insulted and humiliated on the street," said Leila 27, a Tehran resident.
Although it might seem that the current Iranian government has been at least periodically "successful" in its latest series of crackdowns aimed at boosting control over society through the primitive method of spreading fear, psychological studies, along with sociological evidence, casts doubt on the ultimate effect of such methods.
The interaction between a country's authorities and its people is among the elements that ultimately shape the norms in social behaviorism. Accordingly, a society that is heavily exposed to violence gradually turns less vulnerable and more resistant toward aggression, thus giving way to the establishment of new behavior norms.
The consequences of establishing a new social norm in Iran, if the current realities of violence manage to carry on, can be summed up simply as the "normalization of violence." Such psychological trauma, in the long run, has the capability to deteriorate societal structures. According to modern theorists of power, it doesn't benefit the involved authority either.
"Violence can always destroy power," wrote political theorist Hannah Arendt in her book, "On Violence." "Out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience. What never can grow out of it is power."
In a relevant example of Ms. Arendt's theory, ten years ago, among other factors, what most effectively fueled 20 million ballots to favor of the reformists — paving the way to winning the presidential office from conservatives — was, ironically, an almost two decade period of harsh street crackdowns, and a policy of intimidation featuring a lack of social freedom as well as the suppression of youth.
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